Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Russia’s attack on Ukraine Feb. 24 follows a string of military occupations since the end of the cold war. The distance from Natchitoches belies the relationships that many residents have with both countries.
Dr. Alexei Muravitsky, a professor of mathematics at Northwestern, moved to the United States from Moldova, a former Soviet republic. He denounces Russia’s attack, but he’s also critical of the cautious response by Ukraine’s allies. “The governments in the west… had to be ready to act immediately, that’s my opinion, they’re behind the developments.” He supports Ukraine’s struggle to maintain independence and expressed frustration at the initial round of sanctions enacted. “We are at war, the west is at war with Russia, and there are means beyond rockets, tanks and air strikes; it’s 21st century.” He began listing options for striking back. “The heaviest sanctions possible without weapons: cyber attacks, attacks on Russian electric sector, all possible sanctions on SberBank.”
Muravitsky’s attitude is shaped by first-hand experience in the region. Like Ukraine, Moldova was once a Soviet republic and is now among the poorest countries in Europe, with both nations stunted by Russian activity in separatist regions. A cautionary parallel, Russian forces have occupied its Transnistria region since 1991. While Russia claims its troops there are peacekeepers, its involvement includes propaganda campaigns that undermine reconciliation efforts.
Having noticed Russia’s integration of propaganda into its state-controlled media, Muravitsky gave up on Russian news sources years ago. “Even now, I do not watch and don’t read any… because I know what’s going on,” he said. Since Putin’s ascent to power, Russia has deployed “peacekeepers” to conflict zones including Armenia and Azerbaijan (2020), Syria (2015), Ukraine (2014) and Georgia (2008). In each case, hostilities fester as peace negotiations stall under Russian influence. In the three decades since the Soviet collapse, Russia has withdrawn its peacekeepers only twice: from the Balkans after the Yugoslav wars, and Kazakhstan where it recently intervened to prop up an authoritarian regime against popular protests.
Dr. Jim Picht teaches economics at Northwestern and worked with Ukrainian and Russian officials during the privatization process to improve government and economic systems that collapsed in the 1990s. In Ukraine, he worked for the Institute of Public Administration to train government officials. Remarking on his work’s importance, he stated, “It was under the direct control of the prime minister’s cabinet.” By contrast, his work in Russia struck him as more of a show. “It got very frustrating because it was a requirement for them to get money (from) the World Bank, the IMF, and they would be receiving billions of dollars and in order to get the money they had to have foreign experts helping them.”
Picht spent only a year in Ukraine before moving to Moscow, and he notes that his personal ties to Russia are closer, “The number of friends I have in Ukraine has diminished over the years… I have more friends in Russia than Ukraine. I’ve spent more time in Russia. I’ve been back to Russia more often. I’ve been in closer contact with my friends in Russia.” Early in the conflict, he expressed optimism that the danger to his friends in Ukraine is minimal. He believes Russian forces will try to limit civilian casualties to avoid retribution from the west. “I think they want to subdue it as bloodlessly as they can,” he said.
In Picht’s view, Putin is obsessed with maintaining Russia’s status as a world power, which is threatened by a stagnant economy and a declining population. He sees restoring territories lost after the Soviet Union disbanded as only one part of Putin’s plan. “Russia is in trouble… They’re facing a demographic crisis,” he said, “The pessimistic forecast sees the Russian population declining by about 20 million.” Expanding on this point, Picht pointed to rivalries that Russia faces from China, India, Europe and the United States. “What’s a country with 120 million people going to do to maintain its power?” he asked.
“Land is not power, you need a military… You need people.” Picht explained. He suggests that Putin sees absorbing the ethnic Russian populations of neighboring countries as a faster way of reversing the shrinking population than addressing social and economic ills in a country that increasingly serves only Putin’s handpicked elites. Declining living standards have burdened Russia with high suicide rates and low fertility. Rampant deaths during the pandemic linked to poor medical infrastructure caused Russia’s population to shrink by nearly 1,000,000 people over a recent 12 month period.
Picht says he’s preparing to grieve for Ukraine’s freedom. “Physical safety isn’t really what’s concerning me right now, it’s the loss of having your own culture, your own country. It’s something that Ukrainians have wanted for a very long time… I think that dream is going to be dead for a while.” He believes that if Ukraine is defeated, Russia will install a puppet government. “Then (Putin) can turn to the world and say ‘okay Ukraine can do it’s thing,’ but Ukraine will do its thing as essentially a part of the greater Russian empire,” he said.
Picht concluded by reflecting on his attachments to both countries. “I like the Ukrainian people. I like Ukraine… The people were friendly, and that wasn’t what I was expecting when I moved there. ” He pointed toward a shelf of wooden mementos he collected during his time abroad. After lingering near them momentarily, he instead turned to a photograph of his two children. “My favorite Russian souvenirs,” he joked. Like many American couples, Picht and his wife adopted from Russia.
Steven Hines adopted his son from Russia’s Vladivostock region in the 2000s. Max, now 15, was only 2 when he entered the United States, but he still refers to the woman who cared for him in the children’s hospital he was born in as his babushka, a Russian word for grandmother.
For Hines, the choice to adopt a child from Russia came after he and his ex-wife had already adopted their daughter in the United States. Hines described the difference between the two processes, “In the United States… you basically put together a portfolio selling yourself to the birth mothers, and they go through the portfolios and choose who they want to be the parent,” he explained. “In these foreign countries it’s different. You just… submit some information, you have to meet some criteria, you have to have a bedroom available for the kid… every country is different, but these are some of Russia’s requirements.”
Russia has a high rate of parents who surrender their children to orphanages, with the problem particularly acute among children born with disabilities. Adoptions by American parents presented an opportunity for tens of thousands of Russian children to find loving homes. Hines described why he chose to adopt from Russia. “Russia was one of the shortest wait times, but there children are available for adoption in Russia until they are eight months old to Russians, and then they become available to foreigners.” He also pointed to a casualty of poor relations between Russia and the United States. “Now, of course, Americans can’t adopt from Russia at all.” Putin signed a law banning adoptions to Americans at the start of 2013 amid worsening relations between the two nations.
Now Russia’s attack on Ukraine has caused the United States and its allies to implement new restrictions including banning Russian flights and restricting access to the SWIFT banking system that enables credit card and wire transactions. For ordinary Americans, many of the severed ties are personal. For Muravitsky the loss appears professional, but offered an opportunity to see old friends and colleagues. “There was a conference scheduled to be held in Kiev in May and it’s not going to happen.”
Hines also described a trip to Russia that his ex-wife had planned. “There was a possibility she would travel to Moscow in May, and was thinking about taking Max. Of course that’s off the table now… He would like to visit someday.” Hines added that he has tried contacting friends in Vladivostok including Max’s babushka. “I normally hear back from them, and they ask how Max is, things like that, and I haven’t heard back anything.”